CIA psychology through the declassified memos

I’ve been reading the recently released CIA memos on the interrogation of ‘war on terror’ detainees. The memos make clear that the psychological impact of the process is the most important aim of interrogation, from the moment the detainee is captured through the various phases of interrogation.

Although disturbing, they’re interesting for what they reveal about the CIA’s psychologists and their approach to interrogation.

General framework
It is clear that empirical psychological science is core to interrogation-based intelligence gathering on both the individual and general approach levels. In clinical psychology, this is known as the scientist-practitioner model, where scientific research is used to understand types of problems and design interventions, but also where an iterative hypothesis-testing information-gathering process is applied to each individual.

The memos state that psychologists are involved in both directing interrogations and mental health assessments, making it likely that the majority of military psychologists are originally trained as clinical psychologists.

Indeed, after a visit to Guantanamo Bay, American Psychological Association president Ronald Levant wrote about his trip in an article for Military Psychology noting “I turned to see a former doctoral student in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University (NSU), who is now a military psychologist”. NSU strongly emphasises the scientist-practitioner model and it this style of clinical psychologist which probably makes up the bulk of the CIA’s ‘Behavioral Science Consultation Teams’ (BSCTs).

It is also clear that the CIA are interested in finding out two types of information: one, intelligence from the detainees, and two, which methods are most effective in doing so. It is interesting that all references to the impact and effectiveness of the interrogation methods are based on single cases (x has started giving intelligence after the use of y) or data from the US Military’s own SERE interrogation resistance programme, run on its own personnel.

There is no significant blacked out text in these sections, indicating that there are unlikely to be other key sources of evidence (such as secret research on the effectiveness of torture). In other words, Guantanamo and other interrogation facilities are as much interrogation labs as they are interrogation centres.

Integrated physiological monitoring
The memo [pdf] that discusses the interrogation of ‘al-Quaeda operative’ Abu Zubaydah has an interesting part where it states that “in an initial confrontational incident, Zubaydah showed signs of sympathetic nervous system arousal”. This would suggest that the detainees are wired-up to a system that detects physiological arousal – probably GSR, blood pressure, heart rate or a similar combination.

This would allow the interrogators to look for patterns in stress responses and focus on areas where stress was present despite an outward appearance of calm. The memo also notes that Zubaydah “appears to have a fear of insects”. Assuming that detainees would not voluntarily disclose their phobias, we can assume that likely phobias are detected by exposing the detainee to photos or situations related to common fears and then monitoring the detainee for abnormal stress responses.

The summary of the psychological profile of Zubaydah is notable for the fact it doesn’t use the psychoanalytic or psychodynamic language more favoured by FBI profilers, instead using the relatively plain language of cognitive and psychometric approaches. For example, it describes his “coping resources”, rather than his ‘defences’, “problems” rather than ‘conflicts’ and makes no reference to any unconscious desires or motivations.

The profile is apparently “based on interviews with Zubaydah, observations of him, and information collected from other sources such as intelligence and press reports”. As with the FBI, there is likely to be formal psychometric methods for analysing self-written text to help inform the personality profile, although the complete profile is probably put together by a psychologist who integrates the various sources of information with only a conservative level of interpretation.

Confused understanding of ‘learned helplessness’
A couple of the memos note that the whole interrogation procedure and environment is designed “to create a state of learned helplessness“. This is a concept originally developed by psychologist Martin Seligman who found that dogs given inescapable electric shocks would eventually just give up trying to avoid them and remain passive while electrocuted. The theory was related to depression where people with no control over their unpleasant lives supposedly just learnt to be withdrawn and passive.

The concept is not particularly well validated, but even if it was and you were an interrogator, you’d want to avoid learned helplessness at all costs, because the detainee would see no point in co-operating. Furthermore, the acceptance of the theory is in direct contrast to the claims that the interrogations should not cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” Learned helplessness is, by definition, the effect of chronic uncontrollable suffering.

What the interrogators want, and indeed, what the memos describe, is not learned helplessness, but where the detainees know and can demonstrate that co-operation is the only method that allows them control over their environment. This is more akin to sociologist Ervin Goffman’s concept of a total institution.

Clues and curiosities
One memo [pdf] mentions the concept of ‘resistance posture’, meaning the act of resisting the interrogators demands. The fact that this a specific term is used, and that it is additionally referred to as something that could be measured (‘This sequence “may continue for several more iterations as the interrogators continue to measure the [detainee's] resistance posture”‘) suggests that this might be a specific psychological concept that is being empirically measured, perhaps through a combination of behavioural and physiological responses, presumably to help distinguish between resistance and genuinely not knowing the answer to a question.

It’s interesting that there is no reference to any neuroscience-based research or monitoring to justify conclusions, despite the widespread reports of the US secret services funding billions of pounds of research in this area. This may be because it’s too secret to release to the public, but it is just as likely that, as with other brain-based ‘prediction’ methods (neuromarketing, brain-scan ‘lie detection’) the data is less useful than more straightforward and better validated psychological and physiological methods.

As has been picked up by Wired the claims that 180 hours of sleep deprivation is not harmful in the long-term is based on a selective and limited reading of the scientific literature and is disputed by the people who carried out the research.

Link to PDFs of released memos.


  1. Posted April 26, 2009 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    This is psychological torture. The sort of person who engages in it and the rationalization of it is twisted. It is publicly funded abuse of the most vile and disgusting kind because its aim is to cause such confusion and emotional pain that the person’s spirit is broken. As you say regarding learned helplessness, it doesn’t even lead to the ostensible aim, ie procuring information. Although I believe that the aim wouldn’t justify the means either, it is evident that the means don’t even achieve the ends. It is outrageous. And people wonder why there is still so much abuse in our society! It’s part and parcel of our legal and citizen funded institutions.

  2. Posted April 26, 2009 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    I cannot but help noticing the impersonal tone of this article. We may call it ‘professionalism’ but it is as much ‘desensitization’. When we strip what we are discussing of its human touch and instead talk or think of it using only abstract and academic terminology, we gain a distancing from the emotional and moral repercussions of what we are discussing. I believe this is one of the factors that makes us easy to implement and/or let implemented such inhumane and torturous methods of interrogation.

  3. madhypnotist
    Posted April 26, 2009 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    Lillian.. We are essentially at war. I use the term essentially because people debate the politics of war, but, the mental or psychological torture leads to information that saves lives. Possibly on both sides. The goal isn’t death nor is it physical harm. We are facing an enemy without those rules. I for one am in favor of these “enhanced techniques” I have two relatives, soon to be three, that face these combatants and would rather use every technique allowed by law, to stop this situation as quickly as possible. Our military is publicly funded and with the information gathered, we are targeting more specific areas and accomplishing more goals.
    Just my opinion. But, I believe we received valuable and lifesaving information via these techniques, you may not. It is a topic worthy of debate. Im not sure what info the enemy received when they torture, burn and behead our troops before they drag them thru the streets… but, I think our system is far more humane

  4. StunnedMullet
    Posted April 26, 2009 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    To Badhypnotist… Stop the situation? Or make it? What you want to achieve and do achieve are very different.
    What you achieve is the unforgetting unrelenting undying unsleeping hatred of every friend and family member of the people you torture.
    What you achieve is the fear, distrust, disgust and deep enmity of all who might otherwise have been your willing allies.
    A pox on both your houses! You and your enemies deserve each other.

  5. Sig F Hesse
    Posted April 27, 2009 at 3:43 am | Permalink

    I’m amazed at how easy it is to have compassion for the accused while having so little for the accuser.
    The leadership and interrogators were under tremendous real-time pressure to prevent another attack. They wrestled with the legalities and ethics and sought advice and consent from the medical and legal communities.
    To the best of their abilities they tried to satisfy two conflicting goals. Their end product was imperfect, but its reported to have prevented an imminent attack on Los Angeles.
    Perhaps you could let your bleeding hearts shed a few cells for the men and women who wrestled with the dissonance of the situation and who’ve been exposed to possible future trauma by their new President.

  6. christo
    Posted April 27, 2009 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry to see that your interesting analysis of the situation has brought on comments from people who can only see this sad situation form a political perspective.
    You comment about the misunderstanding of learned helplessness is critical. “Learned helplessness” is the stated goal of the psychological consulting firm hired by the CIA, run by James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.
    See this Salon article form a couple of years ago:

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